Coaching 101: Friendly Gesture or Evil Plot?

Crabtree's the "X" receiver, Morgan's the "Z."

We've officially entered the NFL doldrums. Try as hard as they might, the movers and shakers of professional football can't keep their sport relevant all year round – anyone heard what Brett Favre's been up to these days? Now, with the NBA and NHL playoffs reaching their climaxes, the baseball season hitting its stride and the World Cup having kicked off, the NFL is resigned to the back burner.

Faced with this stretch of barren land, where tumbleweeds are practically rolling through Candlestick Park, it was a pleasant surprise to be invited to a media-only event hosted by the 49ers last month (What can I say? I knew a guy). The brain-trust of the organization thought it would be a good gesture to reach out to the local scribes and allow them an inside glimpse of the team from a coaching point of view, thinking that by exposing themselves to the writers, that they could forge a bond between the team and the media. As it turned out, the "Coaching 101" seminar was a staged affair that was superficially informative, but didn't offer us much in regards to what goes on behind the curtain.

After initially meeting in the media trailer, we were ushered into the 49ers complex and seated in the team's defensive meeting room. The place was surrounded with scarlet and gold banners, each one emblazoned with the kind of inspirational messages Mike Singletary has been spouting since he took over the team, such as his mantra of what is to be expected of a football player and his formula for winning in the NFL.

A bored-sounding Singletary kicked things off with an introductory speech, and as he was expounding on just how difficult it is to play football and how complex and incomprehensible to all but the coaches the 49ers system is, an odd feeling crept into my gut. It was as though he was making excuses for the poor play of the offense last year, while at the same time establishing contingency plans for failures to come.

Last season the 49ers were lambasted by the local media for being too predictable, for letting the opposition dictate to them whether they'd be calling runs or passes and for trotting out a style of offense that made golf exciting by comparison. I didn't have to look far beneath the surface to get the impression that the team wanted more than to teach us the rudimentary concepts of the game. I believe they were looking to manipulate how the writers would cover the team in the future.

It sounds crazy and conspiratorial, I know, but hear me out.

After "Coach Sing" stepped down, new Special Teams Coordinator Kurt Schottenhiemer was introduced. He lectured us on the importance of field position, showing on the overhead projector the percentages of drives that lead to touchdowns and field goals depending on where teams begin their drives. Then, we were shown clips of 49ers games from the previous season, with Schottenheimer pointing out why various kick returns were or weren't successful (hint: the blocking). His lecture was all obvious, pedestrian stuff, more "Football for Dummies" than "Coaching 101."

When Schottenhiemer finally finished, it was Offensive Coordinator Jimmy Raye's turn. Throughout his fellow coach's speech, Raye was slumped in his chair, eyes halfway closed, with a glazed, zombiefied expression on his face. However, as soon as he was called, he bolted up from his seat like Uma Thurman's character in "Pulp Fiction" when she was stabbed with that adrenaline needle, diving immediately into his playbook and firing out with machine gun-like rapidness offensive terminology totally foreign to the audience. Not being versed in the lingo, it sounded like a bunch of gibberish.

After Raye was done lecturing us on the derivatives of offensive theory in the NFL, we were introduced to ultra-peppy Defensive Coordinator Greg Manusky. While he was loud and expressive like a coach out of central casting, he spoke in the most general of terms when describing the type of defense his team likes to play, not getting anywhere near as technical as his offensive counterpart. Manusky's overriding theme was "we hit them hard and we do whatever we can to win." No intricate details, no frills, just overview stuff. He went on for maybe ten Redbull-fueled minutes and we were done.

So which of these was not like the other, and why? With Raye, like everyone else in the room, I tried my best to follow along, kind of grasping the gist of what he was saying but drowning under the torrent of new verbiage. The clowdier my brain got, the more certain I was about why the team had brought us here – to make their offense seem so deep and cerebral that we should throw our hands up in the air surrender to it, pleading ignorance. By dumbfounding us over their most basic minicamp installations, they figured that the alien terms and concepts would shame us into not being derogatory about the offense in the future, thinking we wouldn't dare critique what we clearly don't understand.

Oh how little these naïve folks understand the media.

Just because I can't remember the name of some off-tackle run, it doesn't mean that I'm wrong about how wasteful it is to call that play when the defense has eight in the box. I may not know the fullback's responsibility when the defense is showing a "Cover 2" look, but I can still call the offense conservative for never lining up with three wideouts unless it's third-and-long. All the fancy terminology in the world doesn't change football common sense. You watch enough games, you learn a few things.

Maybe the Niners coaches and public relations people had nothing but good intentions in mind when they hatched this idea. I'd really like to believe that. Unfortunately, I just can't ignore how dumbed-down and obvious Schottenheimer and Manusky were, compared to how over-the-top technical and verbose Raye was. To me the purpose of this seminar seemed to be, "If we can make these media doofuses' heads spin, then they won't rip our offense anymore," and it was transparent.

At least the day ended with lunch at their fully-stocked, top-of-the-line cafeteria. Eating alongside the other writers and across from the coaches, I momentarily cast my suspicions aside. It's hard to be cynical while munching down on ribs.

These guys are positively diabolical.

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